Mark Farley did not hold back the superlatives when he began describing sixth-ranked South Dakota State.
In the midst of a two-game losing streak and coming off perhaps its worst performance of the season in a home loss to South Dakota last Saturday, Northern Iowa’s task to get back on track and remain in the hunt for a playoff spot is tall.
It’s Hobo Day (Homecoming) for the Jackrabbits and other than a hiccup two weeks ago in a 42-41 overtime loss to Southern Illinois where SDSU blew a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter, the Jacks have been dominant.
“They are legitimate good,” Farley said. “I don’t think you have to tell anybody that. They played for the national title last spring. They’ve got back the same team that played for the title.”
And with a date with Southern Illinois at home next Saturday, the Panthers need a win Saturday to get back on course.
“It is huge now because of the circumstances,” Farley said. “It is big always.”
Offensively, SDSU has been extremely impressive behind the playmaking of quarterback Chris Oladokun, a graduate transfer from Samford.
Khristian Boyd is expected to help the situation with his return to the field this weekend at South Dakota State.
The Jacks have scored 41 or more points in all six games and will be a severe test for a UNI defensive unit that ranks second in the Missouri Valley Football Conference giving up just 303.7 yards per game and just 18.3 points per game.
Oladokun has completed 90 of 136 passes for 1,274 yards and 14 scores against just two interceptions. Running back Pierre Strong brings balance to the attack with 770 rushing yards and nine scores.
UNI has done a fairly decent job against Strong, the all-American running back. Until he had 91 yards on 22 carries in the spring, in two prior games against the Panthers, Strong rushed for just 20 yards on 11 carries.
“He is similar to the quarterbacks they have been playing with,” Farley said. “He is a lot like the guy they had last year as what he is doing. He is a very good runner, a good thrower. He fits their offense nicely.
“He is very smooth, very confident in the role he is playing. I think he looks excellent. I hate to say better than last year’s guy, because I thought he was good as a freshman, but (Oladokun) fits their needs very well.”
SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier does not put much stock into UNI’s recent struggles, because he believes the Panthers play some of their best football when their backs are against the wall.
“Coach Farley will have their guys ready to go,” Stiegelmeier said. “They play very hard, very hard. They have very good skill and they expect to make the playoffs and that is teetering a little right now so they will be ready to play without a doubt.”
First, he says the Panther defense will make things difficult for Oladokun.
Panthers head to Fargo looking for first victory in the series since 2014.
“I think their strength on defense is their back seven,” Stiegelmeier said. “Their nose guard is one of the best in the nation in terms of defensive line. But really their strength in terms of skill and are physical, is in the backfield.”
Stiegelmeier also says the Panthers have skill all over the place on offense.
“We need to eliminate some big plays, make them march the field,” Stiegelmeier said. “Day (Theo) has a really good arm. He makes good decisions, and he’s got a lot of targets and a lot of weapons.”
Another thing on SDSU’s radar is home-field advantage has not been a big deal in recent games against UNI.
The Jacks won in the Dome in the spring, and the Panther since 2015 have won three times in Brookings, including twice on Hobo Day – 10-7 in 2015 and 38-18 in 2017. UNI also won 13-10 in the FCS playoffs at SDSU in 2019.
Stiegelmeier said part of that is just the nature of playing in the MVFC.
“When you play in the Missouri Valley Football Conference you are going to play a lot of good football teams,” Steigelmeier said. “You better be ready to play your best football.”